Social Security

How Big Will My Social Security Disability Benefit Be?

By Beth Laurence, J.D., University of California, Hastings College of the Law

Your monthly Social Security disability benefit amount is based on your lifetime earnings, averaged over many years. It is not influenced by how serious your disability is, whether you can work part time, or how much money or income you have (with the possible exception of other disability benefits, discussed below). While most SSDI recipients receive between $700 and $1,700 per month, the amount of money you will receive is specific to your earnings record.

Note that this article discusses Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), not Supplemental Security Income (SSI). (The SSI benefit is a fixed amount for low-income folks and is not dependent on prior earnings.)

How Your Social Security Disability Benefit Is Calculated

The Social Security Administration (SSA) calculates your disability benefits using a complex formula. The formula starts by looking at the income on which you've paid Social Security taxes—called "covered earnings"—over the last 35 years (or less, if haven’t worked that long). Your average covered income, after being adjusted for economic fluctuations, is known as your “average indexed monthly earnings” (AIME). The SSA then takes fixed percentages of your AIME (called "bend points") to come up with your monthly “primary insurance amount” (PIA).

The maximum SSDI benefit in 2017 is $2,687, but the average SSDI benefit is $1,171.

How Disability Benefits Relate to Retirement Benefits

Your Social Security disability benefit is calculated using the same method as your retirement benefit. So, if you were to receive disability benefits at age 65, your disability benefit would be very close to what your retirement benefit would be at full retirement age.

Most people who collect SSDI, however, become disabled at an earlier age. Their disability benefit is usually lower than what their retirement benefit was estimated to be at full retirement age, because the disability benefit calculation doesn’t include the earnings from the years leading up to full retirement age, which are usually one’s highest earnings years.

However, the months where you had no or lower income due to your disability shouldn’t reduce your benefit. Once you are approved for Social Security disability benefits, your covered earnings are retroactively “frozen” back to when your disability began, so that your earnings during the months you were disabled don’t count in the calculation of your primary insurance amount.

Getting an Estimate of Your Social Security Disability Benefit

The easiest ways to determine the amount of your Social Security disability benefit are to call Social Security and to check your Social Security statement. You can view your statement online at www.ssa.gov/mystatement—after you set up an account. (Social Security sends out printed statements every five years to those not receiving benefits, and every year to those over 60.)

When Your Benefit May Be Reduced by Other Disability Payments

If you’re receiving other disability payments from a government or government-regulated program, your monthly SSDI payment might be reduced. Workers' comp benefits and temporary state disability benefits are the most common benefits that “offset” Social Security disability benefits.

The offset kicks in if—after combining all benefits—you would receive more than 80% of the average amount you earned before you became disabled. If your benefits (including dependents benefits received by family members) would be over 80% of that amount, Social Security will reduce your SSDI benefit. In some states, workers’ comp will reduce the workers’ comp payment ahead of time so that Social Security need not reduce your SSDI.

Other disability payments that may lower your Social Security benefit are civil service disability benefits and state or local government retirement benefits that are based on disability.

On the other hand, there are some types of benefits or payments that will not reduce your Social Security benefit. They include benefits from:

  • VA (Veterans Administration)

  • SSI (Supplemental Security Income)

  • employer-sponsored long-term disability (LTD) or short-term disability insurance policies, and

  • private LTD or short-term disability insurance policies.

Note, however, that a LTD insurance company may reduce its insurance benefit by the amount of one’s SSDI benefit. Whether your LTD company will reduce your benefit depends on the language of your policy; employer-sponsored group LTD plans usually allow for an offset, while privately purchased LTD plans usually do not.

Social Security Disability Backpay

Most applicants for Social Security disability are owed disability “back payments” after their claims are approved. This happens because most claimants begin to receive benefits paid long after their disabilities began. SSDI backpay is paid as one lump sum, usually at the same time you receive your first disability check.

How many months of backpay you will get from Social Security is determined by when your disability started and when you applied for SSDI. You can get paid back benefits for up to a year before your application date—as long as your disability began before five months before that date. (There is always a five-month waiting period after your disability begins during which time you don’t get paid benefits.)

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